Don't call it a comeback; drive-in movie theaters have been here for years. Since 1933 to be exact when Richard Hollingshead tinkered with a sheet and a Kodak projector in his driveway until he perfected and patented his light-bulb moment and opened the original outdoor cinema in Camden, N.J.
The concept took off, especially after Hollingshead's patent was overturned in 1949, and sound technology allowed audio to be played through a car's radio. In the heyday in the '50s and '60s, there were about 4,000 permanent drive-ins. These days the number is closer to 300, according to DriveInMovie.com, which has a searchable database that makes it easy to find out what's playing (and where) near you.
Many are historic with retro refreshments, flashback features, and original screens, befitting a nostalgic night at the movies under the stars. Others were built in the digital decade and tricked out with distractions like mini-golf, barbecues, and playgrounds to help pass the time until the sun goes down. Some even add concerts, games, and giveaways to the program.
Given the current need for social distancing, the overwhelming desire to get out of the house, and the fact that many people are Netflix and chilled out, drive-ins are once again seeing a surge in popularity and this list of 18 highlights some of the best theaters across the country for bucket seats, buttered popcorn, and big screens.
If you don't want to go big on movie night in Maryland, go home as the 64-year-old Bengies (in Middle River) boasts the biggest movie theater screen in the states. It measures 52 feet high by 120 feet wide, which means films aren't cropped to fit the display. The Middle River business' season is longer than most as they open in early spring and don't close until late fall. You get more bang for your buck Fridays and Saturdays as they show triple features and during all-night dusk-to-dawn programming on holiday weekends. They also do nostalgia to the nines. Every showing begins with the national anthem, the concession stand is original, there are audience participation rituals, and intermissions are filled with vintage cartoons and trailers.
Wilson Shankweiler opened the country’s second drive-in in Pennsylvania in April 1934. Today, 86 years later, the Orefield landmark stands as the oldest still-operating drive-in in the country. The entertaining elder is to be respected as it has lasted through changing technology, going from speakers on poles to digital projection and sound in 2013, and survived 1955’s Hurricane Diane, which leveled the projection booth and the shadowbox screen.
There's Texas-sized fun to be had at this Fort Worth triple threat, y'all. It's a drive-in with four screens. It's also a concert venue and a beer garden. The Canteen pours more than two dozens brews, including mainstream suds (Bud Light and Dos XX) and local crafts (Martin House, Rahr), a handful of ciders, and six wines, all of which are perfectly paired with a Frito pie or churros. If your whip happens to run on literal horsepower, admission is free. Hitches are provided to tie up your steed while you watch from the lawn.
Get ready for star-on-star action. There are the ones gracing the silver screen at the Butte business and the ones that slowly illuminate, filling Montana’s famously big sky with sparkle. Arrive early to secure a primo parking stall and catch the fiery sunset show overhead.
Even if it wasn't the only theater to motor to in New Jersey, the Delsea's super-sized snack bar alone is worth the price of admission. Of course, the Vineland drive-in still slings the classics like popcorn, hot dogs, and Raisinets, but the ambitious menu also offers pierogies, spring rolls, eggplant Parmesan, and pulled-pork sandwiches. There are even extensive gluten-free, low-carb, and Atkins options.
Take in the old-school outdoor cinema experience seven days a week in Montclair, California, just 40 miles from Hollywood. It isn’t SoCal’s only drive-in, but it’s the only one where guests are welcomed by giant Moai-like heads and buy tickets from palm-thatched huts. It alternates up to eight new releases on four screens, hosts almost daily swap meets, and organizes classic car and lowrider meet-ups. Other must-visit drive-ins throughout the Golden State include The Solano in Concord, Sunset Drive-in in San Luis Obispo, West Wind in Sacramento, and South Bay Drive-In in San Diego.
This Fairlee, Vermont, compound offers not only the night’s entertainment but also a place to stay. As one of only two drive-in/motel combos in the U.S. (and the oldest), you can choose to eat mozzarella sticks and watch the movie in your car or bed. The motel rooms feature rear viewing windows that gaze out at the screen. Brew something in the Keurig coffeemakers to stay awake for the second act.
Go green while going to the movies in Gibson City, Illinois. Although the entertainment complex got its start in 1954, the family in charge nowadays has instituted several eco-friendly initiatives since taking over in 1989 including installing LED lighting, using recycled materials, and powering approximately 25 percent of their operations—from frying up funnel cakes to staging concerts—with energy generated by the on-site solar array and wind turbine.
The Florida favorite offers a multitude of ways to have fun 365 days a year, rain or shine. With 14 screens, the self-proclaimed world’s largest drive-in rivals any indoor multiplex in terms of capacity and programming. It also includes an 88-acre flea market, an arcade, and a free Ferrari museum.
Get your cinematic kicks on Route 66 at this Carthage, Missouri, drive-in situated along the famed cross-country highway. Given the strong connection to car culture and Americana that both things represent, the location could not be more poetic. We also appreciate the old-fashioned American sass filtered throughout their rules. One example: when detailing the rules regarding outside food, which they allow to be brought in, they casually throw out this shaming bon mot, “We pay our bills with money made in the concession stand. If you bring outside food, you are contributing to the demise of drive-in theaters.”
The 71-year-old Northfield doesn't just show movies. Sometimes, the drive-in that straddles the border between Massachusetts and New Hampshire stars in them too. Back in 1998, the Hinsdale drive-in was used as a location for three scenes in "The Cider House Rules." The scenes were shot on Halloween.
The Tulsa theater was also ready for its close-up. Francis Ford Coppola came to town in the '80s to adapt "The Outsiders," S.E. Hinton's influential tale of feuding '60s teen gangs set there, with the help of then relative unknowns Rob Lowe, Tom Cruise, Ralph Macchio, Patrick Swayze, and Diane Lane. Several scenes take place at the drive-in. While in town, tour other locations, including the Curtis Brothers' House, which is now a museum dedicated to the novel and film.
The Lagrange, Kentucky, property is known for programming mostly family-friendly classics like "The Goonies" and "Back To The Future," but should get extra kudos for the genius disaster double feature that pairs "Wizard of Oz" and "Twister." (It's an extra meta experience watching the scene where a drive-in screening of "The Shining" is interrupted by a spontaneous twister while in your own car at a drive-in.) Sponsoring a Summer Retro Wednesday allows you to pick what's showing that night and invite 50 cars of friends for free.
Only 23 miles from Portland in Newberg, the drive-in has been in the same family since Grandpa Francis built it in 1953. Unlike many of its competitors, the 99W rules allow folks to bring in outside food. Might we suggest picking something up from another Oregon institution just down the road? Burgerville is known for its burgers and shakes made with local ingredients like strawberries, blueberries, Rogue Creamery's Hopyard cheddar, Seely mints, and Portland Coffee Roasters beans.
Two outdoor screening rooms anchor this Freedom, Wisconsin, property, but it also offers customers 18 holes of mini-golf, basketball courts, volleyball courts, and a refreshment center stocked with homemade pizza, cheese curds, nachos, and cheddar popcorn. We’d expect nothing less from a drive-in located in America’s Dairyland!
In North Carolina and need a night out? Head to this converted campground surrounded by big trees in Kings Mountain, near Charlotte. Having only opened in 2016, it's one of the newest kids on the block. Owner Mike Brown ran a local movie theater in the late '70s and '80s and decided to get back in the biz with his son Preston after the region's other drive-in shuttered in 2014. The recent build equates to newer equipment and digital projection. A patron was once joined by his pig for soft serve and cinema, which was fine as pets are allowed. We can only hope they were there to see "Babe."
If we're being honest, the Fort Collins outdoor cinema had us at movie-themed shave ice, rootbeer floats, and funnel cake fries. The menu even caters to meat-free film buffs with Beyond Burgers. But HT, open since 1968 and currently the highest performing drive-in in the U.S. according to the general manager and his film buyer, has plenty more going for it. It's a woman-owned business with resident dogs. The Rocky Mountains provide a pastoral backdrop to screenings, and sunsets usually don't disappoint either. It also offers lots of unique events that go beyond the big screen, including the Mountain Standard Fallback Fest and Bikes, Brews, and Blockbusters, a bike-in celebration highlighting local bands, beers, and short filmmakers.
Washington: Blue Fox Drive-In
The Pacific Northwest knows how to party. The theater complex, which sits amid the pastoral fields of Oak Harbor, also includes a snack bar, arcade, and go-karts. The track is a quarter of a mile long and is open for races until showtime at dusk. Be sure to grab a bag of their signature kettle corn.